Believe it or not, the war of the worlds is not happening in downtown Durham, and all the scattered piles of concrete is not evidence of the existence of Godzilla. But the massive construction and the sound of human beings yelling to their lungs’ capacity may make you wonder.
Do a little investigation, and you’ll learn that the yells heard up and down Parrish Street in the early evening are called “kiais” in Japanese, or “spirit shouts.”
Upon entering 118 W. Parrish St., you’ll find a group of people in drenched white karate uniforms. There’s enough salty sweat in this place to give an onlooker high blood pressure. Men and women slide across a shining hardwood floor, punching and kicking as if each strike were their last. They greet you with a humble bow, look you in eye and say, “Osu!” which means “Push through adversity.”
Determination is evident in the faces of all of the students. They aim jumping kicks at tennis balls that hang from the ceiling at alternating heights from the front to the back of the dojo. They start with the ball that hangs the lowest and hope, through practice, to eventually be able to kick the highest ball. They leap and often miss, sometimes falling to the ground. This training method is like life itself, and the idea that progress is made in increments, through determination and persistence, seeps in at a cellular level.
The Kyokushinkan International’s Ligo Dojo of Budo Karate is not your everyday school. It not only offers instruction for the average Joe or Jane, but it’s also the home of the Budo Karate House (BKH) program, where students come to dedicate themselves to three years of monastic-like training in full-contact Japanese karate.
Nathan Ligo, the dojo’s founder, has shoulders and forearms that tell you he does something physically intense, but the demeanor of this unassuming 34-year-old is calm and welcoming, not at all like the stereotypically insane Cobra Kai dude from Karate Kid.
Ligo, who is from Chapel Hill, began karate training at age 13, inspired by movies and role-playing games. What he found was no fantasy–rather, it was something very real and life-altering. Ligo says he was small as a teen and had low self-esteem, but the hard training and discipline of karate changed his body, and in the process he became more optimistic and confident.
Ligo laments that karate students don’t always have access to that same experience. So many schools are money-driven, which is one of the reasons he started his dojo. “The American martial arts business climate tends to prosper by allowing fantasies of people’s perceived abilities to thrive. I lucked into a teacher who wasn’t in it for the money. He was out to make a real difference in people’s lives, not a fantasy one. Because of what my teacher did for me, I have an intense desire to improve things in the lives of young people.”
The discipline of karate has an equalizing power, too. “One of the truly great things about the Durham dojo is that it’s in an excellent location to bring together students of many different economic and social backgrounds,” Ligo says. The school also has a partnership with TROSA, a residential program that helps people fight addiction.
Ligo’s first teacher was Seong Soo Choi, the nephew of the legendary Mas Oyama (1923-1994), founder of Kyokushin, or “Ultimate Truth” karate, which is the name Oyama chose after returning from two years of isolation where he trained 12-14 hours a day on Mt. Minobu in Japan. Oyama fought bulls with his bare hands as a way to show the power and effectiveness of his karate and to popularize Kyokushin, which is now one of the largest karate organizations in the world.
Ligo went on to study with Oyama in Japan and in 1992 was the only American and only one of three non-Japanese students to graduate from the live-in student instructors program.
The Budo Karate House in Durham, a residential program for young men ages 17-23, is based on Oyama’s program, and it’s the only program of its kind in the United States. There are live-in Kyokushin schools in Japan, but none are based exclusively on Oyama’s program.
The training begins at 7 a.m. with a 3.8-mile run followed by knuckle push-ups, jumping rope and jumping squats. Breakfast every day (for three years, mind you) is a traditional Japanese meal of miso soup, raw egg, Natto (a protein vitamin packed with fermented soybean), tofu and green onion. After breakfast, students do power stamina training. Then they get a half hour of rest before going to manual labor jobs outside of the dojo. The students have some freedom in what they prepare for lunch and dinner, but all the meals consist of natural ingredients. “I don’t let them eat Pop Tarts,” Ligo says. In the evening, it’s back to the dojo for another two to three hours of intense karate training: They drill the basics, practice the kata (forms), spar and work on the heavy bag.
The BKH is a nonprofit organization funded by donations. Students pay for their board and travel expenses (they travel overseas at least three times a year, training and competing in tournaments in Russia, Korea, Japan and South Africa).
Ligo receives no salary for his efforts. He admits things get tight, but says that struggle is a part of the formula for success.
Applicants to the BKH program are often not new to struggle–some grew up experiencing problems with the law or with substance abuse. Some lacked education, opportunity, ambition and direction. However, Ligo says, “I don’t take for granted that these guys are ‘troubled’ and then treat them as such–I take for granted that they can live in a non-troubled way, and challenge them to do so.”
The BKH program has had 46 residents in its five-year existence. Students have come from all over the country, but none yet from the Triangle, and no one has graduated to date, which is not surprising. The program’s literature projects that due to high standards and strict guidelines, only one student in 10 will be able to complete the course.
The goal is to create champions and future instructors.
Robert Schnoes, 21, of Westmont, Ill., found out about the program in Black Belt magazine, and he plans to be the first graduate. He’s currently the only residential student, but he may be joined by new students in the near future.
I found Schnoes training on the heavy bag, snarling with each punch as sweat ran down his Sgt. Rock-type buzz cut. He’s just past the 100-day mark, and the mountain he needs to climb is not small. I wondered if he’d ever thought about quitting. “Twice,” he said. “But I didn’t want to go home–I gave my word I would finish, and I never break my word.” Watching him hit the bag leaves little room for doubt of that.
Schnoes recently competed in a full-contact tournament in Japan. He said he had fun, even though he got knocked around a lot, and he’s looking forward to returning for another tournament in April.
When asked about his vision for the Budo Karate House’s future, Ligo replies, “I would like to see graduates go on to open their own dojos, maybe even in cities across America from which they came, and in this way teach what they learn here about spiritual strength, determination, ambition and responsibility.”
Curtis Bennet, who was unsuccessful in finishing the program, took what he learned to help him focus and complete a physical therapy degree in California. He has returned to the Triangle to train as a non-residential student at the dojo and to build a life with his fiancée.
Ted Gohman, who left the BKH program to join the Marines, will return at the end of his enlistment to finish what he started. He hopes to open his own dojo some day.
Ligo is impressed by the courage of those who return after not making it the first time around. Picking oneself up after falling is what “Osu!” is truly all about. Pushing through adversity seems to be a mantra for Durham, and so it is no surprise that Ligo’s school lives right in the heart of the town.
Howard Craft is a local poet and playwright who started studying karate at the Ligo Dojo this past fall.
Visit www.budokaratehouse.com to learn more about the Budo Karate House program. For information about classes, call 667-9666 or drop by the school at 118 W. Parrish St.